Washington Post vs. Bob McDonnell

defconSo the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia wrote a master's thesis about family-friendly government policies. Make that traditional family-friendly policies. Written in the 1980s, it suggested that the government should craft policies that encourage traditional families (as opposed to "cohabitors, homosexuals or fornicators"). The Washington Post's coverage of Bob McDonnell thesis is at DEFCON 1 -- just a couple days into it we're now up to two-front page stories, three inside stories, two columns, one house editorial and one cartoon (as of yesterday, that is). The thesis is interesting and controversial, even if it's from the 1980s. It's certainly worth coverage -- maybe even a front-page story depending on the competing news. Heck, I bet that there are a few other politicians out there whose college and grad work are worth a good look. But Virginia Republicans and conservative pundits are worried that treatment of the thesis is just the latest example in the Post's uneven coverage of political candidates. I don't know. Maybe they have good reason to hit one candidate hard while avoiding the controversial contemporary statements of the guy they endorsed during the Democratic primary.

There's actually a lot about the coverage to take issue with, but I wanted to highlight one story for how it sets the scene. It's a front-pager from Tuesday and it's headlined "Governor's Race Erupts Over McDonnell's Past View." The eruption consists of pretty standard campaign stuff -- Democrats sending out emails about the thesis and McDonnell holding a lengthy conference call with reporters to answer questions about the thesis. Here are two paragraphs that were highlighted by one conservative pundit as the most favorable of the article:

Democrats have long attempted to characterize McDonnell as an ultra-conservative who is playing down his views on such issues as abortion, school prayer and gay rights so as not to alienate moderate voters, particularly in Northern Virginia, who increasingly decide statewide elections.

But McDonnell's public record and his reputation among colleagues paint a more complex portrait. He appears as a man with deeply conservative views that spring from a strong Catholic faith but also as reasonable, open-minded and increasingly focused on such issues as jobs and transportation.

Just to be clear: On the one hand he's a Catholic with conservative views but on the other hand he's reasonable!

Anyway, if you're interested, there's much more. And I imagine there will be much more. Here's a sample: "'89 Thesis A Different Side of McDonnell," "Thesis Issue Builds, McDonnell Tries to Move On: Former Colleagues Say Views Persist," and "Republican Turns to Female Backers to Talk Down His Past Views and Promote Economic Plans."

Apart from the overkill on the coverage and the pitting of "reasonable" against "conservative" "Catholic," I'm not sure how well the Post portrayed the thesis to begin with. I read some of it and there is certainly some controversial stuff in there, but take this for instance, from the same story excerpted above:

He criticized a U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing contraception for unmarried couples and decried the "purging" of religion from schools. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values," and he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.

Well, what he wrote wasn't that complicated but apparently the Post doesn't think it's worth explaining (although Post blogger Ramesh Ponnuru does here). Basically, the Supreme Court found a right to marital privacy that included contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut. Later the court ruled -- citing Griswold -- that state governments can't prohibit unmarried folks from buying contraception. McDonnell said that the later ruling "illogically" applied a marital right to unmarried people. So yes, he criticized the ruling but he did so on somewhat narrow grounds. He didn't say anything about whether contraception should be legal and nowhere advocated restricting contraception. That's not the feeling you get, however, if you read the Post.

His view that tax credits for child care should go to parents whether or not they use commercial day care were similarly butchered. He said that subsidizing only the choice to use commercial day care would preference that choice, negatively transforming the family by "entrenching a status-quo of non-parental primary nurture of children." And as families figure out how to organize their affairs, tax credits to pay for day care -- and not for a stay-at-home parent to care for their own children -- can provide an incentive to go with day care. Government policies do affect the traditional family. I wish that newspapers would have more conversations about it. But the war being waged over McDonnell's thesis is not a good example of what a responsible discussion should look like.

Another quick note. This Washington Post chat about McDonnell (by former assistant managing editor and Metro columnist Robert McCartney) describes Pat Robertson as having a "Protestant fundamentalist" outlook. For the eleventy billionth time, "fundamentalist" does not mean "those Christian folks on the right who we don't like." It's a real word, with a real meaning. A word that the AP Stylebook recommends that journalist avoid:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

It's not just pejorative. Pat Robertson, of course, espouses charismatic theology -- something actual fundamentalists are not known for.

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